Life’s Edge:

The Search for What It Means to Be Alive

Life’s Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive

A Notable Book of of the Year–The New York Times Book Review

A Finalist for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award

Best Books of the Year: Library Journal, Science News, Smithsonian 

“Carl Zimmer shows what a great suspense novel science can be. LIFE’S EDGE is a timely exploration in an age when modern Dr. Frankensteins are hard at work, but Carl’s artful, vivid, irresistible writing transcends the moment in these twisting chapters of intellectual revelation.  Prepare to be enthralled.” –Jennifer Doudna, Nobel Laureate, co-author of A Crack in Creation

“Profound, lyrical, and fascinating, LIFE’S EDGE will give you a newfound appreciation for life itself. It is the work of a master science writer at the height of his skills—a welcome gift at a time when life seems more precious than ever.”—Ed Yong, staff writer at the Atlantic and author of I Contain Multitudes

“Stories that both dazzle and edify… particularly brilliant in telling the story of DNA… Zimmer is an astute, engaging writer—inserting the atmospheric anecdote where applicable, drawing out a scientific story and bringing laboratory experiments to life. This book is not just about life, but about discovery itself. It is about error and hubris, but also about wonder and the reach of science.”
Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of Emperor of All Maladies, in The New York Times Book Review

“In this subtle and profound meditation on the science of life, filled with memorable insights into the past and future of biology, Zimmer reveals the extraordinary complexity and diversity of life, as well as the ingenious attempts of scientists to probe its origins and how it may have evolved on other worlds.” The Guardian

“A master science writer explores the definition of life…. An ingenious case that the answers to life’s secrets are on the horizon.”—Kirkus

“A pop science tour de force”—Publisher’s Weekly

“Zimmer invites us to observe, ponder, and celebrate life’s exquisite diversity, nuances, and ultimate unity.”Booklist, starred review

“A fascinating and well-written mapping of the edges of biology, which will have broad appeal to nonscientists”Library Journal, starred review

“To read this book is to realize that life’s insistence on fluttering out of our grasp is a consequence of our desire to pin it down like a butterfly on a board. Life itself may be nothing other than the thrilling uncertainty that comes of recognizing its as-yet unknowns.”Washington Post

“From the struggle to define when life begins and ends to the hunt for how life got started, the book offers an engaging, in-depth look at some of biology’s toughest questions.” Science News


In 1708, the chemist Georg Ernst Stahl posed a question. “Above all else, consequently, it comes down to this–to know, what is life?”  

In 2018, the biologists Francis Westall and André Brack took stock of what science had learned over the intervening three centuries: “It is commonly said that there as many definitions of life as there are people trying to define it.” 

In Life’s Edge, Carl Zimmer explores the nature of life and investigates why scientists have struggled to draw its boundaries. He handles pythons, goes spelunking to visit hibernating bats, and even tries his hand at evolution. Zimmer visits scientists making miniature human brains to ask when life begins, and follows a voyage that delivered microscopic animals to the moon, where they now exist in a state between life and death. From the coronavirus to consciousness, Zimmer demonstrates that biology, for all its advances, has yet to achieve its greatest triumph: a full theory of life.


Sunday Review, New York Times:  “The Secret Life of A Coronavirus”

Slate: “What On Earth Are These Things?”

Quanta: “What Is Life? Its Vast Diversity Defies Easy Definition”


On Point (NPR)

Science Friday (NPR)

RadioWest (NPR)

Quirks and Quarks (CBC Radio)

The New York Times Book Review podcast: “Carl Zimmer on Defining Life.”

Central Time (Wisconsin Public Radio). “Life, As Carl Zimmer Knows It.”


Morning Joe (MSNBC). Conversation with Walter Isaacson

More podcasts: Good Chemistry, Grok Science , Inquiring Minds, Science…Sort Of